Feature Archive

Nix the Nightcap for Better Sleep?

Why drinking before bedtime could affect the quality of your shuteye.

By Jenny Stamos
WebMD Medical News

Reviewed By Michael J. Breus, PhD

Joanne Brucker, 47, grew up with European parents, who considered it traditional to drink wine with dinner each night. But eventually she noticed her nightly quaffing was interfering with her slumber. "I tried to keep it up," she says, "but anything more than two glasses definitely kept me from falling asleep. Why does alcohol before bedtime affect me so much?"

Simply put, alcohol makes it hard for you to stay asleep and sleep well, says J. Todd Arnedt, PhD, clinical assistant professor at the Sleep and Chronophysiology Laboratory at the University of Michigan.

Still, the nightcap has quite a following: Up to 15% of people use alcohol to seduce the sandman, large-scale surveys show, even though research suggests that it loses any benefit as a sleep aid within just a few days, Arnedt says. After a few nights of regular imbibing, your body builds up a tolerance to alcohol's effects.

A larger dose than usual will put you out like a light, of course. However, according to Arnedt, this type of slumber steals from the sleep you would normally get early on in your nightly cycle (called dream sleep). Hours later, when your body has mostly metabolized the alcohol, your sleep becomes fragmented, and you're prone to frequent wakings (often to hit the bathroom).

You may also struggle with snoring, night sweats, nightmares, headaches, and insomnia. And if you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, be extremely careful when mixing sleep with alcohol. Because alcohol is a muscle relaxant, the muscles at the back of your throat ease even more than usual, causing extra-severe symptoms and even (though rarely) potential death. Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that men, especially, have longer episodes of sleep-disordered- breathing after drinking alcohol.

Then, there's the morning after. If you've indulged a bit too much the night before, don't be surprised if you wake up dehydrated and sleep-deprived. And if you've stayed up later than usual, you'll likely feel even worse.

Brucker no longer drinks wine every night. "It ruins my sleep and gives me pounding headaches," she says. "So I save wine for nights when I go out. When I do have a glass at a restaurant predinner, I actually enjoy it more."

If you do want to savor a little wine with your dinner, here's how to make sure alcohol won't hamper your shut-eye that night:

Follow the three-hour rule. Finish drinking at least three hours before bedtime.

Take it easy. Don't overdo your imbibing -- stick with one or two drinks per day.

Retire early. Try not to stay up too much past your usual bedtime -- this only increases alcohol's sleep-depriving effects.

Hydrate. Follow the one-for-one rule: Drink one glass of water for every glass of alcohol to help prevent dehydration. And down a few extra glasses of water the next morning, too.

Originally published in the November/December 2007 issue of WebMD the Magazine.

SOURCES: Joanne Brucker, Atlanta. WebMD Medical Reference from eMedicineHealth: "Alcohol Intoxication." Epstein, L. The Harvard Medical School Guide to A Good Night's Sleep, McGraw-Hill, 2006. Peppard, P. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, April 2007; vol 3: pp 265-270. J. Todd Arnedt, PhD, clinical assistant professor, Sleep and Chronophysiology Laboratory, University of Michigan's department of psychiatry; co-author, 10 Simple Solutions to Insomnia: How to Build Healthy Sleep Habits and Get the Rest You Need. WebMD Feature: "Remedy a New Year's Hangover."

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Last Editorial Review: 2/20/2008